Apocalypse Now is universally seen as one of the most acclaimed and successful films of all time. Often appearing in populist lists of the greatest films ever made alongside the likes of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Godfather (1972), the story of its difficult creation is now part of cinematic legend.
The question is, is it any good? So often, films that are cursed with the ‘C’ word (no, not that one – ‘classic’) don’t really stand up when viewed by new eyes thirty or forty years after their original release. As hard as it may be to believe for fans of the film, Citizen Kane seems incomprehensibly dull and tedious to a majority of new viewers. Many people know of its legendary status but either don’t want to watch it because it’s in black and white, or watch it and find the plot too confusing. The same can be said for The Godfather – it’s so incredibly dense and character filled that keeping up for the full three and a half hour running time is difficult for some.
Apocalypse Now, however, is an exception. While the original theatrical version ran at a not-exactly-slim two and a half hours, much of that is filled with exciting exploration and fantastically trippy war sequences. It’s the imagination of the film that is most surprising to the first time viewer, helped by the casual surrealism thrown in at every moment. The scene in which Lt. Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) demands that Lance Johnson (Sam Bottoms) – an award-winning surfer in his civilian life – demands that he surf on the Nung river is a good example of the surreal elements present in the film. Despite the intense bombing going on in the background, Kilgore watches Johnson surfing and, with a cow being winched by a helicopter overhead, a bizarre scene is created, summing the film up in a way whilst providing a comment on the illusory and absurd nature of the Vietnam war.
The basic story follows Willard (Martin Sheen), a decorated Lieutenant, who is asked to go into the depths of the Vietnamese jungle to kill Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a former Colonel for the US Army turned leader/God to a small tribe. It’s a suicide mission, and Willard knows this.
Every performance is perfect; Martin Sheen gives a career best as Willard, Robert Duvall appears as the iconic Kilgore, a very young Laurence Fishburne plays Mr. Clean, an almost unrecognisably low wattage Harrison Ford is the nervous Lucas, Dennis Hopper is at his usual maniacal best as the mysterious photojournalist, and last, but not least, Marlon Brando is the enigmatic Col. Kurtz, whose shadow is cast over the entire film (and not just because he’s so fat; he’s also terrifying). If anyone is composing an all time greatest ensemble film cast, Apocalypse Now has got to be up there.
It’s rare to find a film in which every single scene is iconic. The Hurt Locker (2008) summed up the war in Iraq for many people, but Apocalypse Now is a much more effective and in-depth summation of the Vietnam war, and is possibly the definitive statement on it. When director Francis Ford Coppola said ‘my film is not a movie; it’s not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam’, he summed up everything the film is. It’s densely packed, it’s different every time you watch it, it’s moving, it’s hallucinatory, it’s brutal, it’s chaotic, it’s pure cinema and it’s probably the greatest movie of all time.